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The East Is Red, White and Rosé (January 10, 2014)

So pervasive is the problem of fake wines in China that a new store in the city of Lanzhou, specializing in the sale of imported wines, is advertising the fact that "if counterfeit bottles are discovered the company has the right to issue a fine of 100,000 RMB ($17,300)." They don't actually say who the fine will be levied against, but it could well be imposed on those producers of phony Canadian Icewine emanating from basements in Mississauga, Ontario, and Surrey, BC.

Lanzhou is the capital and largest city of Gansu Province in Northwest China. Twenty per cent of all the grapes grown for Chinese wines come from Gansu Province and particularly along the Hexi Corridor, which is part of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that linked China to the Mediterranean and India.

Such is the growth of China's domestic wine industry that consumers in Beijing and Shanghai may soon not have to resort to dubious wines from the West. The Chinese wine market experienced an annual growth of 20% between 2006 and 2011 and is forecast to grow another 54% by 2015. Currently China has a per capita wine consumption of 0.35 litres a year. That amounts to three four-ounce glasses a year. With a population of 1.35 billion people, all it would take for the drinking-age Chinese to consume an additional 150 million bottles is to drink one more glass of wine a year.

Gansu's wine industry is centred around Wuwei City, whose northern part borders on Inner Mongolia at the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor. In October 2012, Wuwei City was named "The Wine City of China" by the China Food Industry Association, the only city to be so honoured. Because of its arid desert and semi-desert conditions, its climate is dry, with an annual rainfall of less than 200 mm. The soil is sandy (which prevents phylloxera) and the dry conditions permit organic cultivation. Many of the wine labels carry the term "organic" alongside the winery name.

Everything about the wine industry in China is vast. In Wuwei, by 2016, vineyard plantings are expected to reach 33,333 hectares of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling. Also a grape I had never come across, Cabernet Gernischt, which is thought be with an ancestor of Cabernet Franc or maybe Carmenère.

Currently there are six mega-wineries operating in the Wuwei region – Grand Dragon, Mogao, Huang Tai, Shiyanghe, Zi Xuan and Tengling Ziyu. Remember these names, because I predict that within a generation they'll be as familiar to you as Burgundy shippers and Bordeaux châteaux.

On my first trip to China in 1988 I visited the Dynasty winery in Tianjin, Shandong Province, 160 kilometres south-east of Beijing. It was a joint venture between the Chinese government and Rémy Martin. The wines had a nice colour but that was the kindest thing I could say about them. What a difference 25 years makes. This past August I spent a week touring the vineyards of Wuwei and tasted a range of wines produced by the six wineries mentioned above. The Pinot Noirs and Cabernet blends needed no apologies. While you wouldn't mistake them for Burgundy or Bordeaux, they were very enjoyable and augured well for the future when growers will learn to sacrifice the size of their grape yields for better quality fruit. I tasted one locally made Icewine, made from Riesling Italico, which bore no resemblance to the Riesling Icewines of Ontario or BC. It was sweet and grapey without balancing acidity; but it's just a matter of time before the winemakers get it right. And when they do, watch out. Our wineries will have to sharpen their pencils for the export market.




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